Review of Oren Tal, The Archaeology of Hellenistic Palestine
Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 8 (2008) - Review

Oren Tal, The Archaeology of Hellenistic Palestine: Between Tradition and Renewal (Jerusalem: The Bialik Institute, 2006). Pp. xxiii + 392 (Hebrew). Cloth, US $ 56.00. ISBN 965-342-919-1.


There are only a few comprehensive studies currently available that summarize the archaeology of the Hellenistic period in Israel/Palestine. R. Arav, Hellenistic Palestine: Settlement Patterns and City Planning, 337 - 31 B.C.E. (British Archaeological Reports, International Series 485; Oxford: Archaeopress, 1989) covers part of the material culture of the period and H. P. Kuhnen, Palästina in griechisch-römischer Zeit (Handbuch der Archäologie, Vorderasien 2.2; München: Beck, 1990) deals with the Hellenistic through Byzantine periods. Oren Tal’s new book, The Archaeology of Hellenistic Palestine, makes available an updated study in Hebrew that is dedicated to the archaeology of the Hellenistic period only.

Tal aimed not only at a presentation and a comprehensive collection of data, but also at an integration of the various studies and aspects of Hellenistic material culture within a framework of “social archaeology,” thus stressing the social, economic and political factors that shaped the (material) culture of the Hellenistic period in Palestine.

The publication is divided into an introduction, 10 chapters discussing various aspects of the material culture, and a summary. In his introduction Tal gives an overview of the history of archaeological research of the Hellenistic period in Palestine, followed by an evaluation of historical texts relevant for the period as well as a summary of previous studies dedicated to the epigraphic and numismatic evidence. Tal then gives a short outline of the historical development of the period and concludes the introduction with a brief review of the administrative structure of the land, the roads and communication routes and the ethnic groups that are identifiable in Palestine during the Hellenistic times.

The first chapter analyzing the Hellenistic material culture of Palestine examines the urban architecture. The focus of the chapter is on public structures such as fortifications, water supply, administrative structures, sanctuaries and palaces, and large residences. The chapter concludes with a study of the city plan and urban domestic houses.

The second chapter discusses rural architecture. The emphasis is not on farmhouses, village plans or other structures of the rural community, but rather on estates of wealthy landowners. This is correctly justified by the lack of village excavations. The material is organized according to regions in Palestine. The chapter also includes an overview of agricultural installations such as oil and wine presses, columbaria and pottery kilns.

The third chapter focuses on military architecture such as forts, towers in a non-urban context and fortresses. The relevant sites are discussed according to their regions. The fourth chapter deals with interior architectural decoration such as pillars, columns bases and capitals. Chapter 5 continues with a discussion of the interior decorations such as mosaics and stucco.

The settlement patterns and an analysis of the urban system is the subject of Chapter 6. Tal concentrates on the evidence from the coastal plain. He provides detailed lists of all known settlements, including small villages. Although his analysis does not include detailed evidence for other regions in Palestine, the settlement of areas such as Samaria or Judah is included in the discussion of the chapter.

Chapter 7 discusses the Hellenistic burial customs in Palestine. The burials and some of their finds are presented and a typology distinguishes the different types of graves and tombs. The objects of daily use are studied in Chapter 8; Tal discusses ceramics, glass, stone objects, and artifacts in faience, metal and bone. The epigraphic evidence of Hellenistic Palestine is presented in Chapter 9, which includes the numismatic evidence, weights, seals, ostraca and papyri. The discussion of Hellenistic material culture is concluded in a chapter on weapons (Chapter Ten).

In his summary, Tal sets out to discuss the notion of “Hellenism,” referring to a variety of past and present approaches in the research. Summarizing the discussion of his previous chapters, Tal asks for continuity and breaks with the past during the Hellenistic period, trying to identify innovations that took place during the period. The author comes to the conclusion that when comparing the Achaemenid and the Hellenistic periods, there is no essential distinction in the architecture of the urban centers, the villages or the military realm. The society that shaped these social spaces emerged in its social, economic and political structure already during the Achaemenid period. Tal emphasizes a number of technological innovations during the Hellenistic period in agriculture and crafts. Both ancient Near Eastern and Greek influences seem to have been driving forces in this technological progress. During the Hellenistic period Greek culture was visible and formative in kingship, Greek language and writing, social elites and military dominance, expressed in architectural decoration, ceramics, coinage and crafts. But the traditional local cultures remained an important substratum in the Levant, visible in specific architectural traditions, artifacts and burial customs. Tal argues convincingly from the archaeological evidence of the Hellenistic period for a continuation of traditions from the Achaemenid period.

One may claim that his book is weak in non-archaeological issues such as the evaluation of historical sources or epigraphy. But that was not the main purpose of this volume and Tal has well mastered his main intrinsic task: his book is certainly the most important comprehensive survey of the material culture of the Hellenistic period in Palestine available today. The book deserves an English translation to make it available to a larger circle of readers.

Gunnar Lehmann
Ben-Gurion University